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Women's Leadership Articles

Are some diversity initiatives actually making gender diversity worse?

Lisa Hart Shepherd

25 Jun 2019

Identifying the main factors causing the lack of gender diversity in senior levels in law firms is an emotive subject. The same applies when trying to uncover the most effective solutions. It’s hard to deduce the root problems and necessary fixes because typically individuals draw upon their own personal experiences which don’t always reflect the overall picture. Acritas and Thomson Reuters, as part of the Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law programme, decided to conduct a research study to find objective evidence, aiming to reduce debate and help firms focus on initiatives that will deliver success.

How the research was conducted

The research started with an initial qualitative phase, uncovering the full range of approaches to increasing gender diversity at senior levels within ten representative law firms. The second phase sought to measure the uptake of each approach and correlate this with the levels of diversity found at each level of seniority. In other words, do firms that adopt initiative ‘A’ have a higher or lower retention of women into Equity partner ranks from Junior Associate level?

For the full report, click here: ‘Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Current approaches to improving gender diversity at senior levels in law firms and correlated success

The main findings—some diversity initiatives are working more effectively than others

It is common knowledge that most law firms have very low female representation at Equity Partner level. On average, just 22 percent of Equity Partners were women amongst our participating firms, compared with 61 percent of trainees. But some firms are achieving higher ratios and we were able to correlate higher levels of retention into those senior levels with some of the diversity initiatives. Conversely, some initiatives correlated with lower retention levels. Here are some of the main findings:

  • Gender diversity must be a strategic goal and reinforced with action

By clearly stating gender diversity as a strategic goal, appointing a board level representative and openly declaring targets, the firm is demonstrating a serious commitment to progress. It is critical to track and share progress in the same way the firm would for any strategic goal.

  • Female lawyers need to get their fair share of matter experience and client exposure

Bias—whether conscious or unconscious—is still perceived to be commonplace. Firms that consciously seek to ensure matter teams are representative of both genders correlated with the highest retention rate of women from Junior Associate to Equity Partner level. The same goes for winning business. Firms that ensure request for proposals and pitch teams represent both genders, and also by welcoming client demands for gender balance.

  • Lawyers need training to know when they are behaving badly

Sexual harassment and bullying are commonplace in the legal industry and most firms will have serious and repeated issues happening underneath the radar. The International Bar Association in its recent research report, Us Too? Bullying and Harassment in the Legal Profession, found that very few victims report incidents. Therefore, it is not a surprise that our study found that training on sexual harassment and bullying showed to be an effective tool in retaining more women into senior levels. Not only does training help people to be aware of what bad behaviour is, and hopefully adjust their actions, it can also help people to know how to deal with issues when they do arise—both for bystanders and victims. Firms that deal with bad behaviours in the correct way also achieved higher retention rates. It is critical to eradicate signs of a toxic environment as they arise.

  • Reconsider initiatives that create silos or put women off

Unfortunately, there are some well-intentioned initiatives that correlate with less success in improving gender balance at senior level. The research showed that ‘women only networks’, for example, can be damaging for gender balance. However, opening those networks up to include men can result in them having a positive effect. Mentoring and coaching programs also showed a negative correlation. Further qualitative exploration suggested that advice can sometimes put women off the partnership track rather than encourage them. The key to making these initiatives a success is collating feedback from staff.

Lead by example

For those that are responsible for driving diversity efforts in law firms, there was overwhelming recognition that the tone from the top made a serious difference to the success of diversity initiatives. The tone from the top needs to be consistent across all leaders, both male and female, because it will take everyone, or at least the majority, to make a difference.

Lucinda Case, Lead, Legal Professionals, Europe, at Thomson Reuters commented, “many law firms have accepted that there is a significant imbalance at the top of their structures is not helping their business. They are responding to that by implementing changes to their strategies that should, given time, be a force for good”.

Lisa Hart Shepherd, Acritas’ CEO, added, “the research has delivered some surprising insights that are consistent with broader diversity research which suggests some diversity programs have a negative effect. It is important for firms to take a step back and review their portfolio of initiatives and check that they are working holistically to positive effect in their current form”.

Further Case said, “we are delighted that it has resulted in numerous practical and implementable recommendations for law firms. We are excited about the new and innovative approaches that law firms are taking in driving such change. But there is a long way to go and it is important that gender diversity, like other forms of diversity, remains an absolute top priority for law firms.”

For the full report, click here: ‘Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Current approaches to improving gender diversity at senior levels in law firms and correlated success

 

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